Naval Base Coronado
San Diego, California
The first person Orion “Wicked” Cross saw when he entered the debrief room was Michael fucking Brandon.
“Why the fuck is that empty suit here?” he asked under his breath, but Jude “Hollywood” Lock heard it. He flicked his attention to the CIA a-hole and back to Wicked. They had worked together five years ago on the op that had fractured his relationship with Kat. Back then, Brandon had been a CIA officer. Since then, he’d risen in rank and was now Kat’s boss. He had ten years on them, his temples starting to show gray with flecks in his close-cropped beard. He had short dark hair, brown eyes, an ego the size of Texas, and a serious personality deficit.
“Be cool, bro,” Hollywood said.
The last time he’d seen the CIA operative, Wicked had his hands around his throat. Brandon hadn’t pressed charges, but even if he had done so, Wicked’s days on the legendary team that had formerly been called Team Six and was now just DevGru were over. Not a decision by the brass—they gave him a damn medal—but by his own choice.
He hadn’t been able to go back to the way things had been and couldn’t move forward serving with that crew. Not the SEALs he’d worked with, but the CIA who had been closemouthed about that mission when everything had gone to hell and almost claimed Wicked’s life. He still had the scars on his back as proof.
And the loss that had broken he and Kat in so many different and complicated ways. They’d suffered through the images that would never go away. Kat’s condemnation and hatred Wicked had borne for five long years was only the beginning of the blame, and all of it still festered.
Brandon’s face changed when he saw Wicked; it got tentative and wary. Wicked’s fists clenched. Then Ruckus cleared his throat, and Wicked’s attention went to him. Of course, their LT would be completely briefed on the bad blood between the two of them. Out of respect for his commander, he would hold his hatred of Brandon in check.
Except when he looked at Lieutenant Bowie “Ruckus” Cooper, he realized in a heartbeat with the grave look in his eyes and nod of his head, Wicked’s CO knew the whole classified story. It must have been necessary, otherwise the CIA wouldn’t have released any of that information to anyone. It was the hugest failure, goat ass cluster fuck in the history of his missions, and it had taken so much from Kat…and him.
Emotions made him weak. He kept all of them under the surface. That’s why, when he did let his anger have free rein, it was the only acceptable emotion, and it came with a calm and cool serial killer flavor that freaked everyone out.
“Have a seat, gentlemen,” Ruckus said as his team filed in. Immediately, Scarecrow and Kid picked up on the vibe that Hollywood had already discerned. Hollywood placed himself between Wicked and Brandon as a buffer, but his bulk, broad shoulders, and massive chest wouldn’t do any good if Wicked wanted to get at the CIA bastard. He’d bulldoze through anything to throttle the man.
“What? No candy chocolate doughnuts with shinies? I specifically requested at the next middle of the night, tension-filled brief, ones with unicorn rainbow sparkles. Not a good day if I can’t start it off with sprinkles. What kind of lame-ass briefing is this?” It was just in Kid’s nature to be a smart-ass in the face of tension. Not only did it often diffuse it, but it also made everyone at ease due to his boyish charm.
“An important one,” Brandon said in his annoying flat, monotone voice.
“Duh, all of them are important. We save the fucking Free World. Truth, justice, and the American way. You might have heard of those virtues.” Kid grinned and clapped Wicked on the back. “What’s with this guy?”
Wicked growled, and Kid held up his hands. “See, we’re all a little out of sorts. We need our unicorn glitterfetti, and now. Stat, man. It shimmers and shines and is the ultimate overload of pretty!”
Brandon didn’t have a clue, but to be fair, it was Kid, and his batshit crazy ways were well received amongst his team members. The CIA operative’s annoyance came through even with that damn one-level intonation. “Unicorns don’t exist.”
That flat response only sent Kid into fits of laughter as he sat down in a chair. “Shows what you know.” He looked around and then leaned slightly forward in his chair with a conspiratorial look on his face. “I just braked for one on the way over here.” He leaned his elbows on the table, smirking as he sat forward. “You know what that’s a sign of, sir?”
“Kid,” Ruckus said, his voice both gruff and somehow tempered with mirth and steel.
“I could make a run, LT. Unicorns make everything better.”
Ruckus shook his head. “We’ll have to do without an ‘overload of pretty’ today.”
“Suit yourself,” Kid said, his eyes shining as everyone but Wicked grumbled and mumbled about the lack of doughnuts.
As his teammates settled into chairs, chuckling at Kid’s antics, Bronte, their working military dog, growled low in her throat at Brandon. Tank didn’t correct her.
Yeah, even the dog knew he was a piece of shit.
Brandon was the used car salesman of the CIA, slick and ruthless with absolutely no depth. Even worse, Wicked had always suspected he was in love with Kat.
“Listen up, knuckleheads. Kat might be from a different agency, but she’s one of our own,” Ruckus said. He pulled up a picture of an apartment house. “She was staying here, and after accessing satellite imagery, this is what we got.”
Wicked sat forward as the grainy black-and-white video played. He watched as someone, presumably Kat, exited a car parked at the curb, the overhead view capturing the outline of her. As the person moved toward the structure in front of her, out of the left frame, armed men converged. She fought until one attacker pistol-whipped her, then pulled a dark hood over her head. She was then hustled out of the frame.
By the time the satellite passed over again, of course, the vehicle was gone. “When was this?” Wicked asked.
“Two hours ago.”
“Kirikhanistan,” Tank said with a sigh, glancing first at Wicked, then Scarecrow. “That place is the bane of our existence.”
Brandon sat down at the conference table. “We’re going to defer to your team, Lieutenant. Let them do the intel gathering. The CIA doesn’t want its presence in Kumma known. You found your teammate, I’m sure you can find Officer Harrington.”
“Why was she there?” Wicked asked.
Brandon set down the remote clicker. “On a mission.”
“That’s it? That’s all you’re going to tell us? If we need to track her down, we need to know why she was there.”
“That information is need to know.”
“We need to know,” Scarecrow said.
“At this point, that’s not going to be possible. Do your magic when we get there. The CIA will assist as needed, and we’re in your debt.”
If she was in Kirikhanistan and someone nabbed her, it could be directly related to their clandestine op to take out Abram Golovkin. But with that realization came a chilling thought: How had the people who’d grabbed her known? The op was tight, and not even the pilot who had flown them in and out knew what they were up to. Kat had used the utmost secrecy. An unsanctioned hit on sovereign Kirikhanistan soil wouldn’t go over well with the government if it were to be leaked, but Wicked was sure they wouldn’t be overly upset that Abram Golovkin had been eliminated from the equation. Any protest would have been nothing but posturing. Overall the SEALs had the favor of the government for routing the rebels and damaging their leadership.
“We’re getting in the air, so get your stuff together. One hour, boys.”
His teammates filed out, glancing at each other.
Wicked rose and headed for his locker. “Hold up, Cross,” Brandon said as he moved to cut Wicked off at the door. “Are we going to have a problem?”
Scarecrow and Hollywood hovered before Ruckus ushered them out.
“You mean you don’t want to go down your usual macho bullshit path?” Wicked asked, squaring up against the man who was a fraction of an inch shorter. He knew it bugged the crap out of the CIA chief. “Her life is more important than whatever beef we have between us.”
Brandon nodded. Wicked said nothing as he brushed past him and got to the locker room. Scarecrow and Hollywood looked up as he came in. The other guys were gone.
“Everything okay?” Scarecrow prodded.
“Yeah, he just wanted to bond over Kat’s disappearance.” His teammates hovered. He sat down and changed into combat boots. He knew they wanted to support him and would have his back down to the last intake of air. But sharing what happened was…more personal, and it was best to keep that out of the equation. It had no place in his ability to do his job, but it did place a barrier between him and his brothers. Something he’d ignored as he spent time with this team. He wasn’t the new guy anymore. He wondered if he had the capacity to share his past with them, and how they would view him once he revealed his secrets. Would they still be so staunchly supportive? “Just a heads up. I don’t trust that bastard.”
“We got that,” Hollywood said. “He has a punchable face.”
“Too true,” Wicked responded. He checked his gear and his weapon. Leaving the specialist to get everything ready, they moved out. He dropped back so he was walking next to Scarecrow. “Do you think this has anything to do with Golovkin?”
“I’d bet my next paycheck on it,” he said, his voice lowered.
“You two don’t need to whisper like high school girls,” Hollywood said. “We realize that this has something to do with taking out Golovkin.” He turned around and walked backward.
“Tank say something?”
Hollywood laughed. “Are you kidding? No. We didn’t need confirmation when Blue and Charlie’s lives were hanging in the balance. You just beat us to the punch.”
Hollywood sounded a bit…put out by the fact that he hadn’t been in on the op.
“We took a small group, man. It was nothing personal. You had leave to visit your family. “We didn’t want to take that away from you.”
“Yeah, I get it. At least I could look clueless when LT was looking for you guys.” They reached Wicked’s truck. “Do you think he knows?”
“Our LT has shown an eerie ability to figure out what we’re doing. He’s a warrior with mom-like powers,” Scarecrow said with a self-deprecating laugh.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Hollywood agreed.
Wicked was sure Ruckus had guessed and depending on what the team learned on this mission, Wicked was going to have to tell Ruckus all about the unsanctioned black op to take out another Golovkin threat to Blue and Charlie.
He also expected his LT to have a few words for him. Wicked drove onto the deployment air field, exiting his truck, and crossing the tarmac. Their operations specialist was supervising the loading of their gear into the transport. He met the eyes of his commander. Ruckus stared at Wicked for several seconds and then called, “Let’s load up.”
As they filed onto the transport, Brandon got out of a gray sedan that pulled up. Wicked buckled in as he boarded, saying something to Ruckus. When the plane took off, Wicked leaned his head back, giving himself a moment to think about Kat. The SEAL part of him knew she was a capable operative, and she had been in some tense situations. She would stay alive and they would find her, but the male part of him, the protective part, the part that cared deeply for this woman said a silent prayer for her safety.
About twenty minutes into the flight, Ruckus motioned Wicked over. The loud drone of the engine vibrated through the aircraft. “Is there going to be a problem working with Brandon?”
“No. It’s Kat who’s important.”
Ruckus nodded. He looked over at the CIA chief. “He has a punchable face.”
Wicked smiled and chuckled. “Yeah, Hollywood said the same thing.” He was silent for a moment, debating telling Ruckus, then decided he needed to have all the information if he was going to lead them. “LT, there’s something I have to tell you. You’re probably not going to like it.”
Ruckus sighed. “Let’s hear it.”
“Scarecrow, Tank, Kat, and I went to Siberia under the radar. We found Abram Golovkin, and we neutralized the threat to Blue and Charlie. It’s where Kat got the intel for the warheads.”
“Who else knew about it?”
Wicked looked over at Brandon. “I don’t know. Kat keeps everything close to the vest. You read the report about us, and now you know why Brandon and I have conflict.”
Wicked went to rise to go back to his seat, and Ruckus said, “I’m sorry about what happened, sorry for your loss.”
Wicked nodded and headed back to his seat where he promptly fell asleep. He would need the energy.
As soon as the plane touched down, dressed in civvies, Tank, Wicked, and Hollywood went to the apartment building. There was a young woman hanging up her laundry. “Ma’am, may I have a moment of your time? We’re looking for a friend.” Wicked said in Russian.
She turned from the wash, the smell of laundry detergent on the air, a fresh, clean scent.
“Americans,” she said, then switched to English. “The redhead?”
“Yes, did you see anything last night?”
“I was walking my Anya, and I saw them take her.” A small dog, who was lying in the morning sun, lifted her head at the sound of her name. She barked. “Shush, Anya.” She turned back to her wash and hung up a pillowcase, then moved down the line. “Your friend is in grave danger.”
A flowery dress was next, and it flapped in the cool breeze. “Do you know who took her?”
“The men had a tattoo, a purple crescent moon on a blue background.”
The Kirikhanistan rebels. It was their symbol. Purple signified transformation, honor, and cruelty, the moon a symbol of transition, and the blue flag’s meaning was one that was near and dear to every American heart—freedom.
She studied Wicked’s face. “I see you know who has done this.”
“Many people have been taken by them and never returned. I hope your friend is not one of them.”
* * *
Kat really didn’t want to die today, and it wasn’t just because she had many more things in her life she wanted to do—the top of her list was to discover what had happened to her father. He had been missing since she was twelve. It was only by mistake that she had found out he was a CIA officer, and later, during her training, a legendary one. Her heart hurt when she’d stood in front of the wall of stars and knew one of them was for her dad.
Thinking about him led her to remembering why she had been here in Kumma. It was to find Amanda Mack, her colleague who had come here in her place. They’d had a solid lead on the rebels and any intel they had on the warheads, but now she was wondering if it had been nothing but smoke and mirrors. She had no doubt in her mind that nothing would have stopped Amanda from doing her job. Amanda had been on the same mission and been there for Kat when Phoenix had died. If it hadn’t been for her close and dedicated friend, Kat would have completely lost herself.
Where was Amanda, and why had she been taken?
Then, there was more. So much more.
There was a ton of guilt that pressed down on her, a ton of blame that was still out there directed at Orion “Wicked” Cross. She didn’t want to go to her grave with all the lies, ghosts, and hatred between them.
The realization hit her hard even as the man who had been torturing her for hours backhanded her across the face for the zillionth time. Her cheek exploded in pain, and her eye sparkled silver, dizziness made her reel in the chair she was tied to.
“All I want are the names, then we’ll end this.”
“Not much incentive for me to talk, is there, asshole?”
He spat and backed up, his knuckles bloody. “Hook her and we’ll see how cooperative she is in about eight hours.”
With those words, two men approached her, and each reached out to immobilize her. They had learned that one wasn’t enough when she’d almost escaped. They untied her wrists that had been rubbed raw but left her feet bound. Damn them. She could do so much damage with her legs.
They jerked her hands in front of her and tied her wrists together. Then they lifted her between them, walked across the room, and opened a metal door. Inside was a steel hook dangling on a chain from the ceiling. They lifted her high enough to snag her bound hands around the hook. As soon as they let her go, her weight dragged at her shoulders as her feet dangled to almost touching the ground. There was a drain right below her left bare foot with rusty stains tracking across the concrete.
“Great accommodations, but the view leaves much to be desired.” She looked up at the huge metal beam above her. I am never going to give you those names. No matter what you do to me. And she meant it. Those SEALs had always had her back, and she wasn’t going to give them up to these bastards. She’d rather die. In fact, she had every expectation that they were looking for her right now. It wasn’t lost on her that she depended on them finding her, more than she trusted her own agency.
Even though it wasn’t exactly what she wanted. It was her current reality.
“You will talk, bitch.”
“Let me guess. You have ways? I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t get a maniacal laugh.”
Scowling, he left the room with his buddy in tow, closing the door with a boom that reverberated through the enclosed space.
She closed her eyes as every ache and pain in her body washed through her. Taking a deep cleansing breath, she tightened her upper body and concentrated. She brought her knees up to her chest, then using the hook as a fulcrum, she curled her body up, contracting her arms and back to give her the slack she needed to loosen her bound hands. Sore muscles screamed, her empty stomach protested, but she mustered every ounce of energy she had left and channeled it into her tired, bruised muscles. There was no defeat here. She wouldn’t ever give up as long as there was breath in her body.
With slow, steady strength, she pushed up until her body was balanced on the beam above her, then she unhooked her hands and started on the bindings.
Ten minutes and she had herself free, another five and her ankles were untied. With an agile move, she swung her body off the beam and dropped down to the concrete. She stumbled, her legs taking a moment to support her after being immobile for so long in that chair.
She rested for a few seconds and looked at the windows in the room. They were too high, and she wasn’t going to get out using that route. She would have to fight her way out. Either she was going to escape, or she was going to die trying.
She put her hand on the doorknob and went to turn it, but before she could, it pushed back. She found herself flat on her back. Without waiting for the person who had come through the door to react to her being free, she got to her feet and charged him.
He countered her punch to his face, almost as if he knew her moves, and her flurry of kicks met…body armor.
The man she was grappling with suddenly grabbed her upper arms and got her back enough to discover who she’d been trying to take down.
“Got your hands full, there, Wicked. Need a little help?”
She snapped her head up and met a pair of very blue, very amused eyes. “Hollywood!”
“Good thing we took those bastards out. She would have killed them with her bare hands.”
“So, you weren’t worried,” she said.
More men pushed through the door. Ruckus, Scarecrow, and Kid.
“Hoo-yah!” Kid said, and he saluted her. “You have nine lives, lady.”
“Was that an attempt at humor?” Tank asked as he just wrapped her up in his big arms and squeezed, lifting her right off the floor. Everything protested, but God it felt good. Bronte whined and licked her hand. She absently petted the dog.
“Yeah, her name’s Kat,” Kid said in a duh voice.
“If you have to explain the joke, it’s not a joke,” Blue said, immediately drawing her over to a chair and pushing her down into it, his blue eyes concerned. “Let me take a look at you.”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Ol’ Blue here will decide if you’re fine,” Cowboy said, crouching down and smiling.
Through all of this, Wicked just stood there in the doorway where she’d tried to take him down without effect. For a moment she couldn’t look at him, remembering how she hadn’t wanted to die without resolving things between them. But suddenly everything seemed to shift inside her, and she felt a bit sick at what she had just gone through. She would never let them see how much it had affected her because these guys knew already.
But every cell, every muscle, every fiber of her being was so aware of him staring at her like she was his next breath.
“Blue?” Ruckus asked.
“We can move her, but she needs medical attention, LT.”
“Copy that. We’re in rebel territory. Can you keep up?” he asked, and she nodded. The SEALs moved as one. Kat rose and took two steps toward the door, but it must have been adrenaline that had kept her going for so long. With the danger over for the moment, her body seemed to collapse in on itself.
Her knees buckled, but before she hit the deck, Wicked caught her against him. “I’m okay,” she mumbled into his chest.
“No, you’re not,” he said in that infuriating way. Then without waiting for her to get her legs back under her, he bent down and flipped her over his shoulder. She could feel the corded muscles contract against her abdomen and heavy bulging ones in the arm he used to anchor her. With his forearm across the backs of her knees, he started moving.
It was a dizzying ride through the next room, dead faces rushing past with bullet holes in their foreheads, to the waiting chopper. Wicked didn’t slow and he didn’t lose his grip on her. She wanted to yell to put her down, and she wanted to pummel his back, but her energy was spent.
She heard the chopper before she felt the whirling blades. Lifting her head, she saw headlights in the distance. They were coming after them, but they would be too late. Her guys never did anything by half measures. When they rescued someone, that person thanked their lucky stars. She thanked hers.
That was until he came to an abrupt halt and pulled her from his shoulder. His strong grip never left her, and she was mashed to his chest as the chopper hovered to land behind her. The rest of the SEALs were facing the road, their guns up and their faces fixed in battle hard mode. Kat breathed deeply, the memory of how that “fucking bastard,” or FB as she’d delighted in calling him to his face just to see his rage, had tortured her flashed in her mind, as if once hadn’t been enough. She clutched at Wicked’s vest, and his attention dropped to her. His arms tightened around her, his hand cupped the back of her head and massaged it a little. She suddenly breathed him in, a man that she had kept at a distance for a very long time, dangerous enough that none of this seemed to make sense. It was a stupid move.
“How’re you holding up?” he asked in the deepest voice on the planet.
She tipped her head back and met his dark gaze. “I knew you would come for me.”
His gaze roamed her face like he was trying to scrape away the layers and see deeper. She was suddenly caught, hemmed in, his presence a shield closing out the forest, the danger. It made her nerves keen, sentient, her body shifted into his as if that’s where she belonged. He didn’t back off, frowning down at her, and she had the urge to cup his face.
“Always. You can fucking bank on that, wild Kat,” he said close to her ear, and it sent a chill down her body. His face was scary right now. That’s what she wanted when a rebel force was hellbent on getting information out of her—men armed to the teeth with the kind of fuck-you attitude that pulled redheads out of danger.
As the chopper touched down, Wicked was moving with her. Actually, she had no choice. He loaded her into the chopper like cargo, simply picked her up and hefted her inside to Hollywood, who caught her and set her down into one of the seats.
The rest of them loaded in just as the headlights turned toward them, off-roading it across the field.
“Boy, that can’t be good for the transmission,” Kid said as the chopper lifted. Tank chuckled, and Blue gave Kid a big grin.
Kat pulled into herself now that she was completely safe. She’d been a fool to think that anything could be easily resolved with Wicked. Maybe it would have been better if FB had shoved that spiked piece of metal into her brain.
It would have been ten times less painful than deciding to open old wounds and deep, festering emotions.